Do we need new languages?

Recently, I’ve been involved in a number of initiatives around future skill needs. Trying to define ICT skills in the context of finance, retail or professional services for instance is far from a trivial task.

It’s left me reflecting on the business - IT divide or relationship as you will. In 2014 we hit the point where over 50 per cent of ICT spend falls outside the control of the CIO. Yet again the death of the CIO is being talked about at conferences. We’ve been here before, for instance at the end of the 80s with the growth of enterprise PCs. Is it different this time, or merely cyclical?

Reflecting on my early days in IT, COBOL and Fortran, whatever the criticisms, had the advantage that they were in languages close to business and science terminology and could be absorbed by individuals in a range of disciplines. Similarly, transaction-oriented languages once one had been learned were relatively easy to pick up as jargon (Phase, Lock, Rollback) could easily be translated between systems.

In an era of pervasive computing with commodity hardware it’s led me to speculate on how we define and address skill shortages for the digital economy.

Do we really need a generation of lawyers to become proficient in C#, HTML or Python? Alongside the technology skills, the demand for data scientists with domain expertise is a growing challenge.

Could we learn from the early days of computing and develop new domain languages which could allow domain specialists to address their own needs in a more intelligent manner?

I argue that brainstorming apps are essentially visual languages. Talking to a landscape gardener, demonstrating his use of IT I again saw a visual representation of what is essentially a visual discipline.

So, how about a health application language, HAL (history there… Dave!):

IF temperature > 40 and Pulse > 120

Or a legal applications language, LAL:

IF Defendant = Guilty

Particularly in an era of unstructured data, the ability to differentiate CONTRACT (Legal, Psychological or Mafia) is a significant challenge. The recent example of the FEMA in the US trying to procure algorithms to spot sarcasm counts as an example of the problem writ large.

With the internet of things and wearable computing as examples, along with big data, would IT professionals be better engaged in using their skills to support domain specialists through new languages than try to bring more into the IT domain?

I would argue that it was the development of the spreadsheet that enabled finance specialists to understand more clearly what the value of ICT was to their discipline and to help grow the influence of IT.

It took years for EDI to take off. It was the advent of data standards for domains that ensured the growth. Does our history suggest a cyclical or a structural change in the future role of Enterprise IT?

IF CIO = So-last-year.

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    Rob Pickering wrote on 10th Apr 2015

    Sounds an interesting idea but hard to visualise. All programming languages need the basic concepts of logic, structure, flow control etc in some form. My kids use Scratch to create programes and have become fluent with the basics.

    It seems to me that we need an easy to use generic language (using a visual Scratch style interface may not be a bad start) and high quality domain specific api's the simple language can use e.g. for the lawyer, medic.

    This would give a simple language aimed for smart 'business people' that they could learn and put together simple progammes to solve problems in the real world, leaving the heavy lifting and complexity to api developers.

    What do you think Chris?

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About the author
Chris is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.

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February 2018